Flying Fish – the Robtic Seaplane

A group of researchers from the University of Michigan has created the first unmanned seaplane that can perform takeoffs and landings on water. The autonomous aircraft, named ‘Flying Fish’, has a 7-foot wingspan. Developed in the framework of a project funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Flying Fish is designed to advance the agency’s “Persistent Ocean Surveillance” Program.

Inspired by flying fish that soar over water, the team, headed by Guy Meadows, Director of the U-M Marine Hydrodynamics Laboratories, studied sea birds in order to design their robotic plane. Meadows explains: “They’re all about the same size—about 20 pounds with a 2-meter wingspan. It turns out that, aerodynamically speaking, that’s a sweet spot to be flying close to the water. Our plane is about the size of a large pelican.”

Unlike conventional aircrafts, it is critical that the Flying Fish will not take any measurements of its surroundings in order to achieve takeoff from the water’s surface will. Otherwise, the wave’s oscillations would confuse it, causing it to dive into the ocean instead of taking off towards the sky.

The takeoff sequence is triggered when the robot’s onboard Global Positioning System (GPS) notifies the craft that it has floated to a pre designated position and within  ten meters, the Flying Fish is airborne. Ella Atkins, Associate Professor of Aerospace Engineering and of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, explains: “The plane puts the motors on at full throttle and sets the pitch elevator enough to break out of the water. Then it counts and pitches forward.”

The vehicle’s landing is basically a shallow decent triggered by GPS coordinates. Atkins further explains that when Flying Fish impacts the water, it cuts into the water like a diver because it is equipped with pontoons instead of with a flat bottom.

Future plans for the Flying Fish involve adding solar power panels and more sensors to the plane.

TFOT recently covered “Air ray” – a remote-controlled ballonet filled with helium and constructed with a flapping-wing drive mechanism, which allows it to “swim” freely in the air, just like a Manta Ray swims in water. TFOT also reported on Universal Hovercraft’s UH-19XRWa small hybrid vehicle, which is a combination between a boat, a plane and a hovercraft.

More information on the Flying Fish can be found at the University of Michigan website.